Updated: Oct 28, 2018
Q. I was a recent guest at a class my friend attends. Whenever her teacher made reference to “open secrets” people nodded in agreement. I am not familiar with the term and was not invited to ask questions, but would like to know more.
A. Kōans like this one have been used in spiritual teachings since the dawn of time. A kōan is a “public proposition” and can be presented as a statement, question, story or even a dialogue. In Zen practice, it is meant to provoke “great doubt”. Western spiritual teachings employ oxymorons to accomplish the same. An oxymoron is a figure of speech that juxtaposes elements so they appear contradictory, like an open secret.
Kōans and oxymorons are helpful because answers to questions like Who Am I? or What is the Meaning of Life? can’t be learned from a teacher or a book, even if the ego and the intellect are convinced they can. So spiritual teachings contain carefully crafted words and phrases that present a paradox; a statement that contradicts itself but can still be right or wrong, or true and false, all at the same time.
Spiritual teachers talk about open secrets, or seeds of truth that are all around us, hidden in plain sight. But we are not comfortable with secrets, especially here in the West. We want knowledge, truth and enlightenment now, and being good consumers, we’re willing to pay for it if need be. Good teachers know that when we discover something for ourselves it becomes visceral – we get it deep down at the gut level, and chances are, we will never forget it.
In spiritual teachings, open means available (as in open door) and secret simply means undiscovered. This veiled teaching is telling us to open the door and see what lies beyond it; we are being invited to look for ourselves. Usually, these masked references refer to enlightenment, something many of us long for but consider unattainable, at least in this life. Again, that’s just our ego. Spiritual teachings give us more credit than we give ourselves; they assume we may awaken today, tonight, tomorrow or next week. In this way, enlightenment becomes a cumulative, day-to-day practice, part of our daylit world.